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Where does the power lie? That seems to be the question on the lips of too many people at the centre of the Labour Party at the moment. Is it in the new Executive Board? With the General Secretary? With the Leader?
The appointment of the six – no actually seven – Executive Directors could not have been handled worse if it were deliberately designed to torpedo our electoral hopes and the ability of the machinery to deliver them.
There’s been leaking, complaints about leaking and leaking of the complaints. We have a team at the top made up of people who – while am sure are all talented individuals – are hardly the new, fresh start the Party so desperately needs to break out of its divisive rut of the Blair/Brown battles and into delivering the kind of 21st century Party so tantalisingly promised in the Refounding Labour process.
Instead we have had a glut of internal appointments; a seventh appointment announced without advertising, job role, or any transparency of process; a team as unrepresentative of the makeup of our membership and our country as it is possible to be; a demoralised staff, a diminished General Secretary and a Leader who is either deliberately allowing this to happen or is unable to stop it.
These aren’t the moves of a Party that is striding confidently towards electoral victory, but the obvious machinations of two inept machines fighting each other for their own ends. This dispute is threatening to paralyse a Party that was just starting to move beyond the crippling internal battles of our past.
The process has exposed rich seams of division between the Leaders office and the Party Headquarters, but instead of a decisive understanding, there’s been a mess of a fudge of a compromise. As I speak to activists around the country, no one is happy that a single person involved in this tawdry process understands that they should not be competing for personal power, but accepting collective responsibility for empowering a newly fired up membership.
Like aged, tired and starved coyotes the characters involved circle the picked-clean remains of their last good meal as they miss the point completely. The cadaver they are fighting over may look alive, but the monster of centralised command and control has died. This is merely a fight to the death over its zombie corpse.
Politics has changed. It didn’t change because of the coalition; it didn’t change because Blair and Brown left the stage handing the baton reluctantly to a new generation; Politics has changed because the world has changed. The ways we behave have changed and with that they ways we can influence behaviour, and the ways we can and can’t be influenced, have changed.
The politics game and the way it is played is changing because ordinary members find themselves with more voice than ever before. We have new ways of communicating with each other and of communicating with the world. If our Party aren’t talking to us, that no longer stops us publically and loudly talking about them. Apparently it doesn’t stop them publically and loudly talking about each other either.
On Saturday I was delighted to go and talk to an active Fabian Society group in Leeds. When talking about what had brought me into blogging, I told them of my despair at how poorly our last election campaign was run.
I knew that I had better a better understanding of campaigning, of strategy and of political communications than what I saw and heard of coming from the Party. I also had long and bitter experience of trying to help behind the scenes: Writing letters and emails; offering advice where I thought I could help; simply trying to find our basics of where campaigning events were taking place and how to get involved. I’d found more coordination between a bunch of enthused volunteers with mobile phones than I had from Party HQ.
But unlike my parents generation who bear the battle scars of years of trying to make people who never canvass understand what members need, I had the answer at my fingertips. I didn’t need the Party to tell me how to be a member. I didn’t need a Party structure to offer my advice on strategy, comms and campaigning. So I set up my blog, got fired up and the expertise I offer the Party today as then poured out of me.
And that’s the real future of Labour.
Not me. Not any individual member. But a thousand flowers blooming in communities around the country: online and offline. Some of them will burn brighter than others, none will ever agree wholehearted on every issue and never should they, but each of them will feel their own way towards contributing the expertise they have. The prize for the Party is working out how to grab this with both hands.
In this world, can you imagine the kind of tight control the Party wielded over its members and MPs in the 90s (widely understood as tyranny by pager) working ever again?
A few weeks ago I published on these pages an exchange with Mark Thompson, a Lib Dem blogger about the relative merits of our internal Party democracies. Events this week have proved me devastatingly right about the weakness of their prized internal democracy which had so long been untested by power and failed spectacularly under pressure over the NHS.
During that exchange I ended with the phrase:
“Labour isn’t perfect on this score. We have a long way to go. But of the two parties, I’m confident that we’re the one moving in the right direction.”
I’ve been proved right about the direction Mark’s Party are going in. But they’re going in that direction because of their weakness, not their strength. Their new found delight in poorly staged Party management and ignoring the will of their members publically and humiliatingly is hardly a model we should mourn with envy or wish to recreate from the ashes of our own failures.
The measures in Refounding Labour are a good start. But if we stumble at the very beginning of our road to a stronger, better Party we’ll all suffer because of it. Not least those we should be serving – our voters.
The processes of Refounding Labour may have finished the consultation stage, but the passion for engagement they have brought up will not be recontained. We demand that our membership means something and we demand that those who manage the party accept and understand that. That they work with this tide of democracy, messy and haphazard as it can sometimes be. We know that frightens them, but the electoral oblivion of a party without an engaged membership should frighten them all the more. If they thought 2010 was bad, try doing that without your foot soldiers.
Power will be devolved to Labour Party members because we will demand nothing less. We know what we want, we are no longer shy of demanding it and we have more ways of doing so loudly and forcefully every single day.
Embracing this change is the only one way to win in this new paradigm. Those who will win the responsibility for securing the future of the Labour Party will be those who understand and embrace this devolution. The problem is, currently all concerned are locked into an undignified scramble to be the biggest loser; the Kings and Queens of a crumbling sandcastle.
This post first appeared on Labour List.
There was an important post on Labour List this weekend about one of the real uphill battle the Labour Party has to face. It’s a problem I have battled with for years. It’s a matter of our legitimacy, our ability and our credibility. And we are shying away from it.
In all the reviews of Labour’s policy making and party structures there is something missing. Any discussion of root and branch reformation of the Party staff. The Party staff work long and very hard. But I am unconvinced – sceptical even – that they are led to do so in the right way with the right outcomes in mind.
Everyone has a story about the control freakery of the Party. From the “lost” submissions to the press releases not viewed by candidates; from queries never answered to open derision aimed at member bodies. From the canvassing for votes and strongarming delegates at conferences at which you were supposed to listen to the will of the party to ignoring what came out of those votes when it didn’t go as planned. But few in a position to do so ever speak up further than complaining at our branch meetings.
Mostly we rightly blamed the leadership. And we will be right to do so again if Ed doesn’t get a handle on this problem. But we can’t ignore a whole aspect of the Labout culture that exists and reinforces itself among the staff.
What has happened at head office is understandable in a historical context. When Labour was tearing itself apart, an over emphasis on their role in our internal discipline wasa essential to bring us back from the brink. But what was once essential is now habit. Current and former party staffers I meet take pride in defining themselves against the members, despite the members having grown and matured away from the undisciplined rabble we have been. We don’t need a nanny anymore, and clinging to that role is making you an inadequate provider of what is needed.
The Party is about to appoint a new General Secretary. I urge whoever that is to be far bolder than any person in that role has managed for years and remember why you are are. Remind the staff what they are for not just what they define themselves against. Introduce member feedback and modern mechanisms and understanding of politics. Don’t just have a Movement For Change officer, have a genuinely changed ethos.
I want to support the staff in continuing to do the hard, hard slog of getting us back to power. All I ask, all I want is that they decide to support me and the millions like me in doing the same.